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Presidential campaigns see Olympics as fertile ground for ads

US President Barack Obama campaign buttons are seen for sale as Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Fox Theatre in Oakland, Calif., on July 23, 2012.

Tess Vigeland: Just three more days 'til opening ceremonies! The summer Olympics get underway on Friday, with star athletes running, jumping and swimming across our TV and computer screens.

But Olympic fans will also be treated to another intense competition -- and it may not be pleasant. The Obama and Romney campaigns and the super PACs supporting them are expected to air millions of dollars worth of ads during the games. The big question is whether they'll go negative.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports from Washington.


Nancy Marshall Genzer: We're used to Olympic ads full of schmaltzy music and soaring rhetoric.

Visa commercial: We come together to stand, and cheer and celebrate as one.

But there's not usually much unity or celebration in campaign ads. John Davis teaches marketing at the University of Oregon. He's written extensively about Olympic marketing, and he says negative political ads during the Olympics could backfire because Olympic fans want uplifting messages.

John Davis: They're not watching to see two political fighters going at each other. If you have a message, tell me how you're going to benefit my life because otherwise, I'm going to turn you or turn the sound down until the games come back on.

Both President Obama and John McCain ran ads during the 2008 Games in Beijing. McCain was widely criticized for airing a negative ad. It painted President Obama as a shallow celebrity.

McCain ad: He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead?

That was one of four ads McCain aired during the Beijing Games, but it's the one everybody remembers. Like them or not, negative messages have staying power.

Ken Goldstein: I'm not a person who thinks who necessarily thinks that negative ads backfire.

Ken Goldstein is president of Kantar Media CMAG; he tracks political ads. Neither campaign would confirm that they'll air Olympic ads, let alone give us a sneak peak of them. But Goldstein says forget the 'hope and change' bit: Get ready for campaign to campaign combat.

Goldstein: Campaigns are airing negative ads. That's reality. I don't see any evidence that people are going to turn off the Olympics because the different sides are going at each other. It's just competition.

Just maybe not as graceful as the competition on the balance beam. And here's another difference between the candidates and athletes: The politicians can turn their trickiest routines over to their super PAC backers, let them run the nasty ads.

Erika Franklin Fowler directs the Wesleyan Media project. She says that's not a bad approach, because:

Erike Franklin Fowler: There will be less backlash to the candidate if the ad is sponsored by the interest group.

The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action says it will run ads during the London Games. Although it won't say how much it'll spend. Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing Mitt Romney, says it will shell out more than $7 million for Olympic ads.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.


Vigeland: And for those of you who have not yet left on a flight for the Games in London, we share this alert from Britain's banking system. Apparently there are already long lines at ATMs in London, and banks are warning they could run out of currency. So BYOP: Bring your own pounds.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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